How Can You Plan for Innovation?

By Sarah Sain, CAE • January 24, 2017

The iPhone. It’s the one of the biggest – if not the biggest – innovations of our generation. It has changed not only the way we communicate but the way we live. Smartphones today are more than just a phone. In our hands, each of us carries a mini personal computer with the internet, email, GPS and a camera. We keep our calendars, check our bank accounts, download music, update social media and watch movies – all from one device that fits in our pockets. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this is an innovation that didn’t exist before the early 2000s.

The iPhone wasn’t invented overnight though. It took nearly seven years of research and development before Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone in January 2007. It took planning, multiple prototypes and the best programmers in the business. Which all goes to show that innovation doesn’t just happen. Innovation is the product of focus, creativity and hard work.

Your association possesses those same qualities and can build a culture where innovation thrives. Below are ways to plan for successful innovation.

Have a Vision

Every association should have a one-sentence vision statement that clearly communicates the future you are working toward. A vision statement puts in writing your association’s purpose. It should be short, inspirational and memorable.

Take the Alzheimer’s Association, for example. Its vision is “A world without Alzheimer’s disease,” and that statement serves as the foundation for the association’s goals and strategic plan.

When your association’s board, members or staff are considering new ideas, programs or technology, allow your vision statement to serve as your guide. Ask yourself, “Will this innovation bring us closer to what we want to achieve?”

Set Goals

Goals are important in all aspects of life, and setting them can help us achieve just about anything. The questions isn’t whether your association should set goals, but how you can set goals that will encourage more innovation.

The word “innovation” on its own can be open-ended and a bit overwhelming, but innovation doesn’t have to be huge and life-altering to impact your members. Innovation can begin by identifying a challenge your industry faces, then setting goals that lead toward new ideas that solve that specific problem.

Whether it’s a short-term goal that leads to an immediate change or a long-term goal that allows you to continuously adapt, you define the type of innovation your association needs and wants to see.

The iPhone spent seven years in production by some of the world's best innovators before it became a product that has changed how we go about our daily routines.
The iPhone spent seven years in production by some of the world’s best innovators before it became a product that has changed how we go about our daily routines.

Be Nimble

If there’s one thing all industries can be certain of right now, it’s uncertainty, particularly when it comes to politics and the economy. Unfortunately, that uncertainty can lead to hesitancy and reluctance to move forward with big ideas or changes because your association just doesn’t know what’s around the corner.

To keep innovation and your association’s work on behalf of members and your industry from stalling, an association should remain nimble in order to respond quickly to changes in the environment. Keep members engaged in the process and looking for solutions. Communicate effectively and honestly with all involved, and revisit your vision and goals with your stakeholders when new challenges arise.

Don’t Fear Change (or Failure)

Innovation can be exciting and open up whole new possibilities and opportunities, but the change that accompanies it can also be scary. Failure is a possibility. As an association, however, you can’t let the fear of failure get in the way of pursuing new ideas.

Whether your association is becoming involved with new membership software, virtual event solutions or social media platforms, technology is changing rapidly. Identify and experiment with these and other new technologies. If you stick with the way you’ve always done things, you’ll never know if one of these innovations might have improved the way you serve members and your industry.

When it comes to new technology, some of your association’s members will be ready for it; others may not be quite yet. Remember that it’s not all or nothing when it comes to innovation success. If a new technology is extremely popular with one demographic, test it out on that segment of your membership and expand to others when the time is right.

Innovation is a process of successes and failures.

Invest in People

Author and speaker Simon Sinek said, “We should invest in people, not ideas. A good idea is often destroyed by bad people and good people can always make a bad idea better.”

In every association, your people – your staff or your members – are your greatest resource. Invest in the talent you have, and you will create an atmosphere where ideas and innovation flourish. Promote association engagement and volunteerism, not just membership. Encourage continuing education, training and certification through in-person events and online courses. Plan regular team-building activities that build relationships and trust, and spark ideas for collaboration and innovation across departments.

Innovation doesn’t happen without passionate people who believe in your purpose and mission. Like most investments, the more you put in, the greater the reward, so devote resources and time to the people who drive your association’s success.


Ten years after the iPhone was first introduced to the world, Apple has continued to evolve the product, proving that innovation is a never-ending process. If you create a culture of innovation in your association, the great ideas will keep coming your way as well.

About The Author

Sarah Sain is a senior content strategy and development manager with Naylor Association Solutions, working exclusively with society of association executive and meeting professional clients. Email her at [email protected] or follow her as @ssain7 on Twitter.